In one night, it was as though the two potential runners-up to the nomination came to the obvious, but previously elusive realization that they didn’t attack Donald Trump, they would lose.
From the first moments of the debate Thursday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz sought to challenge Trump, ganging up on the front-runner’s shifting positions on illegal immigration and an array of conservative first-principles. After weeks of only attacking each other, and months after they both refused to take on the poll leader, they awoke to the reality that they were running out of time to stop the Trump train.
Coming days after Trump racked up his second- and third-consecutive victories, and as many in the GOP were teetering between depression over and acceptance of the bombastic front-runner as its new standard-bearer, they each sought to dial the stages of Trump back to bargaining. The performance, aides argued, provided at least a signpost toward a long-sought off-ramp from a Trump nomination.
Mocking Trump’s business record of bankruptcies and neckties made overseas, Rubio seemed to relish in the role of attack dog. Cruz earned a laugh contrasting his fight against the Gang of Eight immigration bill with Trump’s activities—firing Dennis Rodman on Celebrity Apprentice. After months of trying to throw Trump out of the conservative tent because of his ideology, the rivals tried to gawk him out of it. Weeks of biting ads and fiery debate moments between the two Cuban-American hopefuls faded, as they found something of a détente in uniting against Trump.
That’s where the similarities ended. Rubio and Cruz may have shared a target, but the nature of the attacks revealed stark strategic differences. Cruz is looks to shore up his support before Super Tuesday on March 1, when he must win his home state and a strong showing in the other 11, largely conservative contests. Rubio, meanwhile, is playing a longer game, believing he can wait until the winner-take-all contests begin on March 15 to rake in convention delegates, but understanding he needs a national message to get him there.
“There’s a growing anti-Trump movement in the party and our goal tonight was to have Marco emerge as the leader of it,” said Rubio senior adviser Todd Harris. “And I think we succeeded.”
Cruz senior adviser Jason Miller said his candidate’s goal was more modest. “I think the thing that we wanted to show was that we’re the one candidate on that stage who has not and will not go to Washington and make deals with Democrats. We’re the one candidate you can count on to be a conservative. “
Part of the reason for the differences is at makeup of the electorate—more potential Cruz voters overlap with Trump, as Rubio seeks to gather everyone else.
It was for that reason that Cruz took care to deliver a forceful argument against Rubio on immigration reform, in addition to Trump, to highlight his past support for the Gang of Eight immigration bill. “It’s a poison pill for a lot of Republicans, Miller said, saying it would help Cruz’s case on Super Tuesday. “None of those votes Trump sheds will go to a Gang of Eight member,” he added.
Cruz has wagered his campaign on strong victories Tuesday in the proportional contests across the south, believing the more conservative states would be his firewall against Trump. That path has narrowed in recent months as Trump has overtaken Cruz atop many polls.
“Clearly Cruz is playing to Texas and we saw a lot of that tonight in how he attacked Trump,” observed GOP strategist Henry Barbour, who endorsed Rubio as part of a wave of Establishment coalescence around the Florida lawmaker this week. “But if he doesn’t perform well, what is his path beyond that?”
On the debate stage, Rubio emerged as the stronger Trump critic, drawing guffaws when he highlighted Trump’s frequent repetition of choice slogans—a reference to his own debate disaster before New Hampshire. With a smile he systematically sliced at Trump’s vulnerability—his pride—bringing up personal and professional embarrassments and refusing to back down when Trump challenged him.
“I’m not sure we were saying any of that to actually hurt Trump,” Harris admitted. “I think that the purpose of all of that was to show that Marco can mix it up as well as Trump can, which is something that no one else on that stage has the ability to do. Was it a substantive argument, no? Trying to wage a substantive battle against Trump is a pretty futile effort.”
Rubio is betting on a weaker-than-expected finish for Cruz on Tuesday, as he hopes to continue the consolidation of the non-Trump support of the political and donor class behind him. But should Cruz falter, it is not clear that Rubio would gain more of his vote share than Trump.
On Friday, Rubio worked to brand Trump with the same sort of epithet that the front-runner has deployed against his rivals. “There is no way we can allow a con artist to take over the conservative movement and Donald Trump is a con artist,” he said on CBS This Morning.